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Church faces backlash for showing Mass at a cinema, as Italy faces severe lockdown

The case highlights growing tensions between Italians and the Catholic Church, which critics say has been granted more leeway while the weary peninsula faces another severe lockdown more than a year into the pandemic.

A movie theater opened its doors for the broadcasting of Easter services, receiving blowback from the community, frustrated that the theater is otherwise closed due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Church of St. John the Baptist in Modena, Italy

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A small Catholic church in Italy responded to Pope Francis’ call for “a creativity of love” during the pandemic by projecting Easter Masses at a nearby cinema.

But Italians, still living under a tight lockdown due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, were quick to call foul, saying the decision was a slap in the face for all those people who haven’t been able to attend movies or plays for over a year.

The case highlights growing tensions between citizens and the Catholic Church in Italy, which has been allowed more leeway in recent months despite COVID-19 restrictions, with churches being open and celebrations allowed. At the same time, it airs the simmering tensions in the peninsula, struggling under the severe lockdown put in place one year since the start of the pandemic.  

Pictures showing the faithful, socially distanced and wearing masks, in a small movie theater near Modena, Northern Italy, quickly went viral on social media over the weekend. While some praised the initiative, others were disgruntled by the church’s “insensitivity.”

“How could the church not think that such a thing could offend and anger all those who work in the entertainment industry, who haven’t worked for over a year and are nearly bankrupt?” Italian actor Gino Andreoli wrote on Facebook.

According to the latest decrees by the Italian government, all theatrical activities and cinemas must be shut down to avoid the spread of the pandemic.

The movie theater in question has been closed for more than two decades and is now a property of the nearby church of St. John the Baptist. As many Italian faithful flocked to Mass for Holy Week celebrations, the local pastor decided to open the cinema to project the Mass and avoid overcrowding.

The Rev. Antonio Lumare told the Italian daily la Repubblica he was “surprised” by the angry reaction, especially since the location was used only to show the Mass.

“We simply used it as a hall because we didn’t know where else to shelter faithful,” he said. “We obviously didn’t want to offend anyone.”

Lumare said he spoke with other priests in his diocese who have used other locations to avoid crowds, adding “all anti-Covid measures were followed” including protective masks, social distancing and hand sanitizers for the faithful. The cinema can host 400 people, the priest said, but only 70 or 80 people were allowed to enter.

Local authorities also intervened to defend the church and its pastor under a flurry of online criticism.

“They respected the rules,” said Mayor Francesco Tosi, speaking to local newspapers. “Whether theatrical activities could be safely reopened is another matter, which we will evaluate, and I could even agree with. But these are two entirely separate matters.”

Others saw the event as a sign from the heavens. “It’s a message from God!” one user wrote on Twitter, “the Lord wants movie theatres to be reopened.”